ACCRA, 1966

Bernadette awoke to the sound of a loud blast and thought Melvin had shot himself. She had feared this day would come, yet nothing could prepare her for it. The flickering light that illuminated the small hotel room blinded her as she slid off the bed trembling. She could feel her heart pounding through the silk nightgown she had hurriedly packed the night they fled Philadelphia for Accra, a city she had only read about in the newspapers.

The story was about a young boxer who won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympic games. “Accra,” she had said out loud, finding the name fascinating. She never imagined that she would be a fugitive in that same city just two years later.

The sound of gun smoke piercing the air jolted Bernadette once more. The hotel balcony door swung open, sending in a rush of light. Melvin leaned in and smiled. “It’s just fireworks, babe. Happy New Year!” She sighed, deeply relieved. The sky burst into a thousand shimmering colors silhouetting Melvin’s towering frame. Even then, she could still see his bright piercing eyes, gazing ardently at her. Bernadette wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders and sobbed quietly.

“It’ll all work out, babe, I promise,” Melvin whispered.

This wasn’t the first time Bernadette had heard those words, but tonight she believed him. Maybe it was the cacophonous crowds celebrating the new year or the ephemeral fireflies floating through the night sky. She truly believed it would all work out. Melvin poured Bernadette a glass of water and they sat on the hotel balcony watching the fishermen stagger in a drunken stupor. A crackling bonfire brightened the canoe sails that billowed at the mercy of the wind, casting an ominous shadow on the beach. Occasionally, a young couple or two would stroll hand in hand toward the crashing waves, avoiding the large groups of women clad in all white who had congregated for a new year’s prayer meeting. Amid the pulsating atmosphere, a somber highlife tune seeped out of a nearby transistor radio, captivating Melvin and Bernadette. Melvin held his hand out to her, a small assurance. They swayed in each other’s arms, overlooking the glimmering fireworks that brightened the city that had given them temporary refuge. Bernadette felt the ocean breeze and mosquitoes buzzing around her ear, and she thought about how similar Accra was to her childhood home of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The humid smell that lingered after a brief downpour reminded Bernadette of a story her grandmother told her about the day she was born. A day she thought about more frequently as she worried her days were drawing nigh.

It was the summer of 1935, and a season of hurricanes and heavy rains had flooded the Mississippi River. Bernadette’s mother, Alice Broussard, was already in labor when news of the broken levees spread like wildfire. Bernadette’s father, Bernard Broussard, had died earlier that summer in a bizarre boat accident on the same Mississippi River that would soon swallow Baton Rouge. The only family Alice had was Bernadette’s grandmother, Ma’ Susan. The two lived in a small shotgun house near Magnolia Mound Plantation, an edifice that conjured the enduring legacy of chattel slavery. The flood soon overwhelmed everything south of Merrydale, and the ineptitude of the state relief agency guaranteed a muddled rescue effort.

When it finally began, the evacuation was for white residents only. Alice and Ma’ Susan hid in the attic, hoping the top floor would serve as safety, but they were soon submerged. The ferocious thunderstorm that battered the house that night drowned Alice’s screams as she pushed new life into the world. Ma’ Susan held her breath underwater long enough to cut the umbilical cord and wrap baby Bernadette in a wet blanket. That was when she witnessed a moment so magical that she never told anyone, except Bernadette.


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Excerpt from THE SCENT OF BURNT FLOWERS published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Blitz Baza, Inc.